Donnerstag, 13. März 2008

Back in Düsseldorf

We arrived in the Düsseldorf-Weeze airport to be greeted by my mom AND Shadow! Despite having lived here for over 6 months I’m still not used to dogs being allowed in most public places. I also don’t feel that Shadow is as well-behaved as most German dogs, so I tend to leave him in the car or at home. We were also greeted by the smell of cows when we stepped outside – the smell that lets you know you’re near The Netherlands. Anyways, mom drove us back to Kaiserswerth, where we did a quick walking tour through the village and grabbed some currywurst, bratwurst, and pommes (fries). I love German junk food! And then to be super-healthy we went over to the Eis-Café to get an Erdbeerbecher (strawberry sundae) and spaghetti ice cream. When we finally got to the house Kat and I decided the best plan of action was a nap – we were both completely exhausted from the busy week and early morning.

After our nap we went out to Vapiano (a new German Italian food chain concept – I think they’re starting up in the U.S. in D.C./northern Virginia) with Jenny and my mom for pizza. It was packed, but I guess that’s what you’d expect in Düsseldorf on a Saturday night. After dinner Kat and I went into the Altstadt to see what was going on, and as usual, it was packed with people drinking beer. We stopped at Zum Uerige briefly to try Altbier, picked up some drinks for the road, and went over to Max’s apartment in Oberkassel. We hung out there for a little bit with Max, Max’s friend Patrik, who was in town from Sweden, and Feli (who studied in Virginia for a year) before going into the city to meet up with Dinesh and Elise. We went to Buddha Bay, a club off of Berliner Allee, and danced the night away . . . literally. Kat and I began to get tired around 3AM and when we eventually went to the train station we figured out that the next train to Kaiserswerth wasn’t coming until 4:45am. Yikes! So we grabbed some food and hung out in a pub in the Altstadt to pass the time. In the end we wound up just taking a cab, which I was grateful for because it got me back to my bed faster. I can’t stay up as late as I used to be able to.

Naturally, we slept in the next day, but were eventually able to pry ourselves out of bed and hop in the car to drive to Amsterdam. Normally it only takes a bit over 2 hours to get there, and technically we were IN the city in that amount of time, but we hit terrible traffic in the city center. By the time we actually found a parking spot the trip time had hit 4 hours, which was annoying. It was nice to finally get out of the car, stretch our legs, and walk around the city. We walked through the Dam and moved onto the Anne Frank Huis. Then we hit the FlowerMarkt just as it was closing, managed to buy a bouquet of tulips from a stand that was still open, and went on a long search for a restaurant. We finally settled on an English pub (honestly, it was one of the only things we could find), got burgers (which I hadn’t had in a while), and enjoyed being warm and inside. By the time we finished dinner it was starting to get late so we wandered back towards the car, via the Red Light District, which is always a bit of a shock to see, and were able to leave the city with no further traffic problems. By the time we got back to Düsseldorf, Kat and I were both exhausted and went straight to bed.

The next morning was an early one because we had to get Kat back to the Weeze Airport near The Netherlands. It was sad to see Kat go – we had a lot of fun. But the good news is she may be coming back for a visit?

After dropping Kat off my mom and I drove to Essen, an industrial town north of Düsseldorf, for a doctor’s appointment. We parked the car and needed help finding the exact street and location of the doctor’s office, so we asked a member of the Polizei (a policeman) for directions. The woman next to him was able to help us out and we found the office fairly quickly. After the appointment we came out of the building to discover that a movie or TV show was being filmed just outside, and low and behold, the scene that was being worked on was a police car chase scene. And who was one of the main actors? The officer we had asked directions from. How embarrassing – he wasn’t even a police officer and probably had no idea where anything was in Essen. So, we had a good laugh, discreetly and hastily walked away from the movie set, and went to Vapiano for a quick lunch.

Since then, what else has happened?

Well, Mom found out she had a hernia (just like I did a year ago) and was scheduled for surgery less than a week later. She’s been home for a little over a week since surgery and is doing very well. She is still doing too much post-surgery if you ask me, but I can’t seem to stop her.

We received a package from Chris, who was here in January, filled with chocolate-chips, brown sugar, and assorted candies that you can’t get here in Germany. It was an extremely nice surprise and will be put to good use. Thanks, Chris!

I joined Dinesh, Max, and large group of expats for a night out in Köln last weekend. It was a lot of fun and Köln has arguably better nightlife, but the trek down there gets to be a little much for one night.

Laura has been in town since Saturday for her 2-week long spring break. We’ve been hanging out, but haven’t done anything tooo exciting yet, aside from going to a Bayer Leverkusen v. Hannover soccer game. Tim, Laura, and I went (unfortunately, Jenny wasn’t home yet from a basketball tournament in Antwerp, Belgium) on Sunday and it was craaaaazy! I’ve never seen more dedicated and excited sports fans in my life. We sat in the Hannover (away team) section because it was the only place we could get tickets together, and were possibly more entertained by the fans than the actual game. It would have been even better if we had been able to understand the cheers! Fyi, final score: Bayer Leverkusen 2 – Hannover 0.

And now Jenny is packing for her school ski trip to Austria (where she plans to learn how to snowboard) and the rest of the family is packing for a week-long trip to Rome. As soon as we are back in Düsseldorf again, Mom, Laura, and Jenny hop on a plane to go to Connecticut – Laura for school, and Mom and Jenny for a visit. So we have an action-packed couple of weeks coming up.

Hope everyone is doing well – we miss you all! Send emails with updates whenever you get a chance!

London (Round 2)

Tim gave me a ride to the Weeze Airport late on a Tuesday night last week (thanks, Tim – it’s the one that’s almost in the Netherlands) so that I could fly RyanAir over to London. I was very excited to be going back to London (one of my favorite cities) and to see Kat (one of my college roommates who is au-pairing in London)!! I arrived in London at the same time I left Germany (due to the time change) and caught a series of buses and underground trains into the city. Kat met me at King’s Cross Station and walked me to the University of London apartment that she and the Fowler Family (the family she is au-pairing for) are staying in. It was late when I arrived, so Michael and Nicholas (the 2 ½ year-old) were already asleep. I got to meet Tyler, the mother, who is really great. She is an art history/archaeology professor at UVA and has a fellowship at the University of London right now. After settling my bags into the apartment Kat and I went to check out some of the pubs in the area. Being a Tuesday night it was fairly quiet, but we found a nice, old pub on the corner and got a drink. By the time the place closed we met two guys (one English and one Irish) who wanted to take us bowling. Unfortunately, the bowling alley we went to was just closing down, so we found another bar and chatted for a while.

The next morning I woke up, walked out into the living room and met Nicholas for the first time. He was a bit confused to see a stranger walk out of one of the rooms in his apartment, but eventually warmed up to me. Kat and I went into the city with Nicholas to meet Kelly, another friend from UVA (who is currently completing a Masters at Oxford). We got off the tube at Victoria Station and walked past some of the “must-see” London sights – Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and on to Trafalgar Square, where Nicholas chased the pigeons. We moved on to Leicester Square where we bought food at Burger King for Nicholas and went into Soho, which was still decorated for Chinese New Year, for lunch. We went to a 5£ buffet at a Chinese restaurant – you can’t do much better than that in London. By this point it was getting close to Nicholas’ naptime so we went back to the apartment, enjoyed some tea, and then Kelly and I went to the British Museum (which was just a few blocks from Kat’s apartment). We saw the Rosetta Stone and an abundance of artifacts that the British have “borrowed” from Egypt and Greece. We tried to see the Terracotta Soldiers, but the exhibit was sold out. Maybe next time.

After the museum Kelly, Michael and I went to Tyler’s lecture on Grecian vases at the University of London. It was strange for me to be back in an academic environment again, but fun. Then Kelly and I joined back up with Nicholas and Kat and got Indian food (my favorite) from down the street. Once we finished up our dinner and Tyler and Michael returned home, Kat, Kelly and I went back out. We went to King’s Cross Station to see the famous Platform 9 ¾ and then took the tube to Victoria Station to get Kelly on her bus back to Oxford. Finding the bus wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be because it didn’t actually stop where it said it would online. After getting in a little late-night jog while re ran around asking for directions we finally found the bus and Kelly was on her way. It was still fairly early in the night so we decided to stop at a pub near Kat’s apartment before going in for the night. Apparently there had been a soccer game going on because the place was filled with fans. We had our drinks bought for us (yet again by one English and one Irish guy) and then went home for a good night’s sleep.

The next morning I left the apartment with Kat, Nicholas, and Michael. We were all headed to Regent’s Park; however, they were going to take the tube/underground and I was going to run and meet up with them – despite the traveling I try not to skip my training runs. London has an abundance of parks and Regent’s is particularly enormous. It contains a large number of soccer fields, ponds, gardens, playgrounds, and birds. I ran for a good hour and didn’t see everything. I even stumbled upon the London Zoo on the northern part of the park, so passed some peacocks, warthogs, and wild dogs during the run. I also ran through an area called “Little Venice” - a canal filled with boats and lined with mansions. It was very cool! I met back up with Kat, Nicholas, and Michael at one of the playgrounds in Regent’s park and we headed back to the flat for naptime. We managed to grab some great sandwiches at Pret a Manger for lunch on the way back. We actually had a very productive nap time. Michael stayed in the flat in case Nicholas woke up, which allowed Kat and I to pop down the street to buy some movies for later, and to buy a large box of tea for me to bring back to Düsseldorf. And what do you know? Being in England, and close to Easter-time, there were Cadbury’s Crème Eggs on sale in the grocery store. We bought some for a snack and had I known at the time that they don’t exist in Germany, I would have bought more. Once we got back to the flat we also called up Her Majesty’s Theater and bought tickets to a showing of Phantom of the Opera for later that night. Once Nicholas was up and it was time for dinner we walked down the street to get fish and chips and mushy peas (which were actually better than they sound). Despite the time I had previously spent in London, I had yet to try fish and chips and I would have been very upset with myself had I missed out again. The food was great and once Kat was off duty we went into the city for the show. Her Majesty’s Theater was very impressive. It was a much different experience than seeing Wicked the last time I was in London, although both shows were great. When I saw Wicked, the theater was very large, modern and without frills. Her Majesty’s Theater, however, was obviously very old and intricately decorated. Additionally, the Phantom of the Opera is a classic show and I know most of the music by heart. We wound up walking all the way home after the show (which wasn’t too bad) because it was a nice night and the city was bustling. We were humming Phantom of the Opera songs the whole way back. We bought a bottle of wine just down the street from Kat’s flat and watched one of the movies we had purchased earlier in the day before falling asleep.

The next morning we woke up and took Nicholas to a nearby park complete with a large sandbox, playground, and petting zoo. The park was extremely kid-friendly and as an adult you had to be “escorted by a child” to be allowed entrance. I really enjoy playgrounds and may have had as much fun as Nicholas did, especially on the trolley. After thoroughly tiring Nicholas out, we went back to the flat for lunch and naptime. While Kat got Nicholas fed I ran out to grab us some pasties for lunch. If they had pasties in the U.S. I would eat them all of the time – they are small pies filled with different meats and/or veggies and are great on the go. If you’ve seen Sweeney Todd, they’re like the pies they make in the play/movie sans human flesh. My eyes were much bigger than my stomach and I wound up buying waaaay more than we needed to eat, but the leftovers served as part of our breakfast the next day, so it was alright. While Nicholas napped, Michael stayed in, and we were able to run out quickly again. We went down the street to a small shopping mall, where I made a few purchases for much cheaper than I can get in Düsseldorf. We went back to the flat, started a movie, fed Nicholas once he got up, and then went out to Oxford Street for some more shopping. We shopped until the stores closed (which sounds like a long time, but was really only about one hour). We went out to Wagamama, an Asian noodle restaurant, and one of my favorites. I wasn’t going to let myself leave London without eating there. It was PACKED, which makes sense since it was a Friday night, but it made eating and talking a little difficult. Still worth it, though. After Wagamama we wandered through Leicester Square and grabbed some ice cream at Häagen Dazs. We went home and Tyler returned from a party in Oxford shortly thereafter. The party was to celebrate the book she had just gotten published in. I got to look at a copy and it was very cool. After everyone else went to bed, Kat and I packed, finished our movie, and eventually got to bed by 2AM. We then were up just after 5AM to begin the trek to Düsseldorf – walk to King’s Cross Station, catch the tube out to Golder’s Green, then take a bus to Stansted, and fly to Germany.

Dienstag, 11. März 2008


A couple weekends ago Jenny had a NECIS (International School) Basketball tournament in Hamburg, Germany. Jenny left school early on Friday with the team and mom, Tim, and I drove up a little later in the day. With traffic the drive wound up taking a little longer than we expected (just over 4 hours), so we went straight to Jenny’s first game at ISH (the International School of Hamburg). The ISD Alts did very well and won their first game 61-12. Due to a faulty scorer, or scoring machine, the final score appeared as ISH 12 - ISD 3, but I kept score the whole time and know what really went down. Mom, Tim, and I drove to the hotel afterwards, inadvertently through St. Pauli, the well-established Red Light District of Hamburg, while Jenny went home with housers from the other team. Then we went out for seafood on the harbour. I haven’t had seafood in a while and it was great!

The next morning we woke up and went to another one of Jenny’s games. The Alts won 38-10, so overall it was a very successful tournament! The team took the bus back to Düsseldorf, but Jenny stayed with us to explore Hamburg. We started off by taking a bus tour of the city to get oriented. Hamburg is really quite beautiful, especially some of the areas around the Alster (a large lake in the middle of the city). Fun fact: apparently Hamburg has more bridges than London, Amsterdam, or Venice! After the bus ride we walked on our own past the impressive Rathaus and the very Italian-looking shopping esplanade near the Alster. We made a pit-stop at Starbucks to warm-up for a bit and found out we weren’t the only ones who had the idea – it, and every other coffee house in the city, were packed. We walked back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. We wound up going to a place called the Old Commercial Room – a Hamburg institution, which of course served great fish. The Old Commercial Room’s list of famous guests was impressive and included the likes of Sting, George Clooney, and maaaany more people I have since forgotten.

On Sunday we woke up and enjoyed the massive breakfast buffet at the hotel. There are so many nationalities in Europe that hotel breakfasts aim to make everyone happy, so there was American breakfast food, German food (mostly meat), sushi, etc. There was everything you could ever want. It was great. Then we drove back into the city and checked out St. Nikolai’s Church, or what used to be a church. St. Nikolai’s is the bombed-out remains of a once-grand church that was the tallest building in the world from 1874-1876 and was ruined in the Second World War. Its steeple is the second tallest in all of Europe after the Kölner Dom. We made sure to stop by Europa Passage for some shopping afterwards. We were especially excited to shop because it was a Sunday and most places in Germany are closed on Sundays. But since I was listening on our bus tour I figured out that the shop owner’s in “Europa Passage” (a large shopping arcade in old town Hamburg) elected to hold their own opening hours and were therefore open on Sundays. When we finally got to Europa Passage we discovered that my German is not as good as I thought it was and everything was closed. So much for getting our hopes up. Maybe next time. Disappointed and dreading the 4-hour drive home we got some more Starbucks and got going. It was a short getaway, but we had enough time to figure out that Hamburg is definitely worth a trip back.

Montag, 3. März 2008


I recently booked a last-minute trip to Prague to meet up with Sarah Dupee (one of my roommates from UVA, who is currently teaching English in a small town in eastern France). And by last-minute I mean very last-minute. I bought my ticket on Friday night and left Monday morning. We figured out accommodations at some point over the weekend. When I arrived in the Prague Airport and checked the status of the arriving flights I was shocked to find that Sarah’s flight had been canceled!!! And this was after she took a five-hour train ride to Geneva to catch the flight in the first place. Luckily she was able to get on other flights to get to Prague – it would have been awful if she had gotten stuck. So I hung around the airport for several hours until her new flight came in and we hopped the bus and metro into the city. We got to the center of Prague as it was getting dark and all of the lights were coming on – the Old Town Square looked very impressive as we walked through to get to our hostel. We attempted to navigate our way to the hostel with the poor directions I had printed from the website, but eventually had to resort to asking in shops before we stumbled upon it. We checked-in, dropped our bags, and went back out into the city to find an ATM and dinner. We went to a traditional Czech restaurant, tried the variety of meat and dumplings that are so popular in the Czech Republic, as well as some of their famous beers, before heading back to the hostel to get some sleep.

On Tuesday we woke up, ate breakfast at the hostel, and took a 3.5 hour walking tour of Prague. We were out for 3.5 hours straight and while we saw a lot, we only scratched the surface of all there is to do and see in Prague. We started in the Old Town Square, saw the astronomical clock (which reminds me a lot of the Glockenspiel in Münich) and various churches before moving into the old Jewish Quarter. We had a quick break, during which Sarah and I got extremely good spinach and cheese pancakes/crepes and warm drinks, before crossing the Charles Bridge to the Lesser Quarter and Castle Hill. The Charles Bridge is very impressive and OLD – it dates back to 1357. It holds more than 30 statues across its length. Once in the Lesser Quarter we saw the Lennon Wall – a wall with a bust of John Lennon and an enormous amount of graffiti. It was used to present grievances and to protest the government under communist rule, but people still decorate it today. We then moved towards Castle Hill, passing MANY cafes before climbing several hundred stairs to get to the castle. The Guinness Book of Records names the Prague Castle as the largest ancient castle in the world. It is 570 meters long and an average of 130 meters wide. Maybe a better idea of size and scale is given by the fact that a gigantic cathedral sits comfortably in one of the many courtyards within the castle walls. The tour ended at the castle with views across the city. Sarah and I took some pictures before heading back down the hill towards the cafes we had seen before to warm up with some hot chocolate and tea. The weather wasn’t great at any point while we were in Prague, but it wasn’t raining, so we were happy. We just had to make frequent café stops to warm up. We ducked into a classical music shop to find out about concerts in the city. If you want to see classical music in Prague you will have no trouble finding a concert. We were told that we could find a concert at virtually any church (and as with most European cities, Prague has a bunch of ‘em). We wound up taking the store owner’s suggestion and trekking over to the Municipal Hall, the premier venue in the city, to see if they had cheap tickets for that night. Luckily, they did! We bought tickets to see the Prague Symphony Orchestra in Smetana Hall, the largest and most beautiful hall in all of Prague, for roughly 10 euro. Not bad.

We had a little time before the concert started, so went back to the hostel to relax and stopped at Bohemia Bagel to grab a bite to eat before the concert. I had read about Bohemia Bagel (a bagel café/restaurant aptly named for the region that Prague is located in) before getting to Prague and was excited to go there, mainly because I have yet to find bagels in Germany. Once we got to Prague we discovered that Bohemia Bagel was about two blocks away from the hostel, so very convenient. We ordered, went to find a table, and when we sat down we spotted Emily and Lee, people we had gone to school with at UVA, at the table next to us!! Talk about a small world! As soon as we saw Emily we remembered that she had mentioned she was getting married and moving to Prague after graduation. But the fact that the four of us wound up in the exact same place at the same time in Prague was pretty crazy. We caught up quickly and made plans to meet up the following morning since Sarah and I had to eat and run. We made it to Smetana Hall just in time and listened to the Prague Symphony Orchestra play Suk, Kabalevsky, and Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” The concert lasted for about two hours, but it went by really quickly for me, meaning it was a good concert. After the concert we decided to walk around the city to see it at night. We went to Charles Bridge and were slightly underwhelmed – not much was lit up, but it was still nice to be out. We wanted to hang out somewhere for a little bit before going to bed and settled on a Moroccan Café near the hostel – we had mint tea, which was great!

The next morning I woke up early to get a training run in before we met Emily and Lee. I crossed the river and went up a large hill (it didn’t seems very big until I started running it) to find a park and great views over the city. Afterwards, Sarah and I met Emily and Lee and we took the tram south to Vysehrad Castle and the Church of St. Paul and Peter. Here's a view from Vysehrad. It was really nice to get out of the city center and the touristy areas. The Church was beautifully painted and decorated inside. A woman who worked there told us stories about the Church in Czech and luckily Lee was able to translate them for us. When we left the Church we walked through the adjacent cemetery where most of the well-known Czech people have been buried (i.e. Franz Kafka and Antonin Dvorak, the composer). We stopped at a café on the castle hill to warm up before taking the metro back into New Town Prague. We arrived in Wenceslas Square, where Prague Spring took place, and Emily and Lee took us to one of their favorite lunch spots. It was a small sandwich/deli shop with open-faced sandwiches of all varieties. Sarah and I never would have found it on our own. We each got three sandwiches and a beer for less than 4€!! That’s amazing! Emily had to run as soon as we finished to get back to school to teach and Lee pointed Sarah and me in the direction of the best places to shop. Sarah and I went into one shop before we decided we were already tired and needed another café break. Afterwards, we went in a few more shops, with very little luck, before heading back to the hostel for a nap.

After our much-needed nap we decided to walk back over towards Prague Castle for dinner. We found another Czech-style restaurant, ate some good warm food, and then went back over to Old Town Square to find some live jazz. We went to a place called Ungelt Jazz & Blues Club, which we had found on the internet, and the music was great. But by 11pm, as most of our nights went in Prague, we were tired and ready for bed.

The next day was Valentines’ Day, and also our last day in Prague, so Sarah and I checked out of the hostel and went out for breakfast/brunch at Bohemia Bagel (you have to get bagels while you can over here). We had egg bagels, which reminded me soooo much of Bodo’s! We went on a quick postcard search afterwards, got some chocolate croissants for later, and then I had to get my bags and head to the airport. It was a short visit, but really nice to see Sarah! Hopefully she made it safely back to France after the rest of her travels!

Lately . . .

I realize I haven’t written much lately, so here is what has been going on over the past couple of months. The holidays were great here in Germany. I for one think that Europeans do an amazing job of celebrating the holidays – lots of time off, lots of good food and drinks, and Christmas markets. I won’t go into too much detail about the Christmas markets, since I already described my slight obsession in the Austria entry, but we enjoyed them, and the abundant Glühwein, very much. Laura was here for the holidays after a successful first semester as a “Camel” at Connecticut College. We got to show her around Kaiserswerth and Düsseldorf and get all of our last-minute shopping done together. We found it slightly difficult to do our Christmas shopping on the far side of the Atlantic. When it came to books and movies we wanted things in English, but to ship those things costs an INSANE amount of money and you even get charged a customs fee, so it’s not worth it. Luckily, we managed to find something for everyone downtown.

We had a nice, quiet Christmas morning in Kaiserswerth. It was the first Christmas that we had with only our immediate family. It was a bit strange and lonely, but hopefully we’ll be seeing people in the years to come! We sat by the HUGE Christmas tree and enjoyed the view of the backyard, although it was without snow, while we opened presents. One of Tim’s Christmas gifts to the family was a trip to Paris. I would have enjoyed the trip, but had already made plans to go to Budapest, so Laura’s friend Chris (from Minnesota) got to take my place when he flew over to visit. I flew to Budapest early on January 2nd and the rest of the family and Chris drove to Paris. I heard good reports from the trip when we all got back to Kaiserswerth! On Chris’ final day in Europe we tried to do a whirlwind tour of the nearby areas – we went to Köln to see the cathedral and Altstadt, into Zons, and around Düsseldorf – the Hafen and Altstadt for a dinner of currywurst and bratwurst. The stops were a bit rushed, but hopefully he got a feel for what this part of Germany is like.

Not long after Chris left, Uncle Jon came to town! He had been on a business trip in London and decided to pop over for a visit. On his first night here we went to Im Schiffchen, the extremely fancy restaurant on the square in Kaiserswerth. Apparently it is one of the top ten restaurants in Germany and it is in our little village – pretty cool. The food was good, but was so fancy and obscure that it was somewhat lost on me. The wine was definitely the highlight. For the rest of Jon’s stay we planned day trips. On Saturday we drove to Amsterdam, walked around, saw the Anne Frank Huis, and went out for dinner. I still love that city. Then on Sunday we went into Luxembourg City. It was nice to return there in clear weather. The views from the “city on the cliff” are beautiful, but the weather was so horrible the first time I was there that you couldn’t see a thing. There were also many more people out in the city this time, which made for a much more upbeat atmosphere. We walked along the edge of the city walls, stood atop the casemates (the old tunnels and armaments on and inside the walls), looked down into the valleys, and stole glances into many of the fancy bakeries around the city. On our way back to the car Jenny and I found one of the coolest playgrounds we have ever seen, complete with a teepee and pirate ship.

The end of Uncle Jon’s visit marked the end of our holiday travels and visitors – meaning back to real life. Since then Jenny has started school again, had lots of soccer and basketball games, and Tim is traveling as much as ever. Mom and I made time to visit the Renoir exhibit in the nearby town of Wuppertal. And Shadow gets lots of walks.

At the beginning of February we had more festivities to look forward to at Karneval!! Karneval is basically the European equivalent of Mardi Gras and it is HUGEly popular in cities along the Rhein River. Düsseldorf and Köln are among the top cities for Karneval. For the official start of the festivities I joined my mom and members of the American Women’s Club to “storm the Rathaus.” At 11:11am, once the Altstadt is filled with people, the mayor steps out on the balcony of the Rathaus (city hall) and tells all the women to go home and take care of the kids, cook, and clean (all part of the tradition, of course). Then the women refuse, break through the doors of the Rathaus, and take control of the city for the night. We got there extra early to make sure we were in the group of 50 women that actually get let into the Rathaus at 11:11am. Once we were inside there was free beer and drinks and we got to watch as all of the women cut the ties off of the city officials (also part of the tradition – you should bring scissors with you on that day if you’re a girl and not wear your favorite tie if you’re a guy). Here's mom with a pirate in the Rathaus. One of the other American Women’s Club members brought her daughter Catherine with her. It was nice to have someone my age around! Our whole group was interviewed and we even made the paper - pretty cool! After enjoying the Rathaus we went back into the streets to find something for lunch. The streets were crazy! You could barely walk around because there were so many people. All of the costumes were great. They were much better than most of the Halloween costumes I see in the States.

The main Karneval festivities went on for 5 days, with the trains and streets always filled with people. On Saturday I went back into the city with Catherine for an English-speaking young person’s meet-up. It was a good night, filled with drinks and rugby-watching. And I’ve been able to keep in touch with people since then, which has been fun. On Monday my mom and I went into Düsseldorf, despite the rain, to watch part of the parade – one of the final Karneval events. We met up with Jörg and Elise on the train and met some of their friends in the city. Overall, Karneval weekend was a great time – too bad it’s only once a year!

Montag, 21. Januar 2008

European Roadtrip and Budapest

The day after Christmas (which we found out is 2nd Christmas here in Germany, and everything is still closed) I picked Sarah and Dana up at the Düsseldorf airport. Sarah is one of my friends from UVA and is teaching English in Russia for the year. Dana is one of her fellow English teachers and is from southern Illinois. They had flown in from a few days in Athens and we planned on hanging out in and around Germany and then going to Budapest, Hungary at the beginning of 2008. After dropping everything off at the house we went for a quick drive through Kaiserswerth, but since everything was closed there wasn’t too much to look at. We hung out for the rest of the night, watched Superbad, and planned a roadtrip.

On Thursday morning we woke up fairly early and jumped into the car (thanks for letting us use it, Tim and Mom) to begin our 2 day-5 country tour. We drove 5.5 hours to Paris, parked in an outer metro stop and took the train into Place de la Concorde. We took ourselves on a walking tour past the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, and along the Seine to Notre Dame. We ran across a statue of Thomas Jefferson - can't seem to get away from him. We walked past “Shakespeare and Company,” the famous bookstore, and then grabbed dinner in the Latin Quarter. After dinner we explored more of the Latin Quarter at night, grabbed dessert (chocolate croissant for me!) at a bakery, and then made our way back towards Place de la Concorde via the Louvre. The Louvre is amazingly pretty at night, and what made it even better was that around 8PM the entire Eiffel Tower started glittering. We could see it across the Tuileries Garden. I didn’t know it did that?! It was great! We took the metro back to our car and had a very foggy drive towards Reims, the city we had booked a hotel outside of for the night. Has anyone ever stayed in a Formule1? It’s a cheaper Accor-owned hotel chain and was an experience in and of itself. We got there close to midnight, which meant that no employees were present anymore. I had to check us in with a credit card, get the code to the gate to let our car in, and use the code to get us into the room. It was perfectly clean and fine, but a little out of the ordinary. The bathrooms and showers were communal for each floor and could best be described as “space age.” The best part though was that it was only $30/night, which meant $10/person.

We woke up early again on Friday and drove in to Reims to see an impressive cathedral. We got back on the highway as the sun came up and went towards Luxembourg, Europe’s third smallest country, in a dense fog. Half of our reasoning for doing all this driving, aside from seeing some great European cities, was that we would see all of the countryside in between. Due to the fog, however, we couldn’t see more than 10 yards beyond the highway. Oh well. As soon as we entered Luxembourg I stopped to gas up the car. Apparently, Luxembourg’s fuel prices are among the cheapest in Western Europe, which is still unbelievably expensive in comparison to what we pay in the states. We arrived in Luxembourg City (pop. 80,000 – the largest city in the country), parked the car, and walked across the bridge to the old town. After the Middle Ages, fortified Luxembourg City was devastated and rebuilt more than 20 times in 400 years and became the strongest fortress in Europe after Gibraltar, thus its nickname “Gibraltar of the North.” The old, walled city is situated on a large cliff surrounded by river valleys and is known for its beautiful views. Unfortunately, the views were somewhat lost on our visit due to the winter fog. Luxembourg was surprisingly dead for a weekday. We didn’t see many people, open stores, or restaurants. We stopped at the famed “Oberweis” bakery, which was luckily open, for a good lunch and tea. I was hoping I would be able to use some of my German in Luxembourg, where there are three official languages – German, French, and Lëtzebuergesch, a mix of German and French. However, French seemed to be the accepted way to communicate with visitors. After lunch we grabbed some postcards and hit the road.

We drove towards Belgium, undecided as to which cities to stop in. We were thinking of 1-2 of the following: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. It all depended on the weather and how much time we made on the road. Belgium is a very interesting place, especially for its size. The southern part of the country, called Wallonia, is officially French-speaking. The northern part of the country, Flanders, is officially Flemish-speaking. There has been talk of making the linguistic divide an official border between two separate countries to ease tensions between the two areas. To make things even more difficult, some of the far eastern cantons are German-speaking. And Brussels, the capital, which lies in Flanders, is officially bilingual - Flemish and French. Talk about complicated. Aside from all of these complications the Belgians know how to do three things very well – waffles, chocolate, and beer. As we approached Brussels the weather started cooperating and we saw blue sky for the first time in I don’t know how long. So we decided to stop. We saw an impressive church and the famed Grand Place, Brussels central square, filled with Gothic architecture. We also saw Galeries St. Hubert, the shopping arcade that contains Neuhaus, the famous Belgian chocolatier and the place where pralines were invented. We grabbed some waffles on one of the many tiny streets surrounding Grand Place and then stopped in an English bookstore, where we bought a guide for Budapest and looked up some good places to try beer in Antwerp, where we had decided to stop next.

We arrived in Antwerp as it was starting to get dark. I didn’t know quite what to expect. Jenny had had a soccer tournament in Antwerp and came back with some not-so-good reports. But I wasn’t sure that she had made it to the city center, so I was optimistic. We made it to the main square in Antwerp and it was hopping! There was an ice rink in the middle of the square, surrounded by Christmas market stalls and stands selling food and Glühwein. There was music and lights everywhere. We soaked up the atmosphere in the square and smaller streets and found an out-of-the-way local place to grab a beer. We tried a local winter beer and it was great! We also seemed to be the only non-locals in the pub. Then we grabbed some currywurst and fries (my usual). On our way back to the main square we bought some real Belgian chocolate – the last thing on our list since we had already tried the waffles and beer. We jumped back in the car to head home. On the way back we spotted a large Church off of the side of the road somewhere in the Netherlands, so pulled off to check it out. It was in a quiet little Dutch village and was very cool to see.

On Saturday, surprise, surprise, we slept in. We watched “Bring It On” while waiting for the laundry and afterwards went into Düsseldorf with Laura and Jenny. Here's a pic of Sarah with the Mullin girls. The five of us took four bikes to the train station (meaning Laura and Jenny doubled up) and then took the train to Heinrich Heine Allee. We started out by shopping on Schadowstrasse and visiting Dunkin’ Donuts. It seems crazy that I can get Dunkin’ Donuts near my house in Germany, but not near my house in the US. Anyways, we continued the walking tour over in the Altstadt, by the river and the Rathaus before stopping for a dinner of Currywurst, Bratwurst and Pommes (fries). We tried a Pils (pilsner) at dinner and then wandered over to “Zum Schlüssel” to try some Alt (Altbier – the beer of Düsseldorf) at the only place that it is still brewed at in the Altstadt. Here's a pic of Sarah, Dana, and me. “Zum Schlüssel” was great because they had tables set outside – it doesn’t matter what the weather is, Germans still stand outside to drink their beer even in the middle of winter. As a joke our waiter kept trying to serve me Apfelschorle (carbonated apple juice) instead of a beer. He thought it was very funny. There seemed to be quite a few people out considering it was holiday time here in Germany. The line at the “Peter Pam” Discotheque across from us was down the street. After our drinks we took the train, and then the bikes, back to the house and watched “I Love New York” with Laura and Jenny. Jenny got the complete season for Christmas – it’s one of those shows that is so bad you just can’t stop watching.

On Sunday morning we woke up and Sarah made the breakfast that her host mom in Russia usually makes for her – eggs and bread in the shape of a sun. It was a rainy day (as expected in Drizzledorf) so our grand plans for a river bonfire and bike ride were out. We watched “Drop Dead Gorgeous” and had an overall lazy day. In the evening, Tim’s friend/fellow Ecolab employee Anthonie, and his wife Beverly, came over for dinner. They’re originally from South Africa, have lived in the U.S., the Netherlands, Düsseldorf, and are now in Minnesota. A lot of the lamps, electronic equipment, DVDs, extra beds, etc. that are in our house now were from them. They are extremely interesting to talk to. Anthonie has run over 60 full-length marathons and half a dozen ultra-marathons, so we had a lot to talk about in terms of running. I have now added the Comrades Ultra Marathon (90km/55.9mi) in South Africa to my list of life goals, but one that is not to be completed for a long time.

On Monday, New Year’s Eve, we set out for Amsterdam. We drove the two hours there and parked in a stadium parking lot to avoid traffic and expensive parking in the city. Sadly, as we left the car around 1pm, we didn’t know that we wouldn’t be getting back to it for another 15 hours. We took the metro into town and walked around for a bit, saw the Flower Market (where you can buy 50 tulips for 5€ and 20 roses for 10€), as well as many coffee shops - the kind that doesn't sell coffee. Eventually we decided to find something to eat and headed over to the Newmarket/ChinaTown area. We had a late lunch, grabbed some bubble tea (the closest I’ve found to Düsseldorf), saw the countdown screen at the Dam (the main square), passed through the Red Light District, and did some shopping. We spent most of the rest of our night wandering through the streets and being scared by the fireworks. If the Germans spend their money on cars, the French on food, and the Italians on clothes, then the Dutch spend their money on fireworks. It was CRAZY!! People were setting off firecrackers all day, with the aim of surprising and scaring others in the street. I screamed on numerous occasions and we even saw someone on a bike go flying into a building and fall over. Since it was cold and rainy we ducked into a bar for a little while to warm up then went back out into the streets for more fireworks. People were sitting in their apartments and shooting professional-show-size explosives out of their windows. I couldn’t believe it. We made our way towards the train station in the hopes of getting one of the first trains out after midnight. Along the way we got fireworks thrown at us, which are very difficult to run away from, especially if you have heels on. We sat at the train station, watched the fireworks, and then tried to head to our car just after midnight. That is when our trouble started. The metro had been closed down much earlier than normal because the authorities didn’t want fireworks going off in the underground. Understandable, I guess, but that cut off our most direct way to the car. The main train station was also closed despite having trains scheduled to leave. We waited outside in the cold with the assortment of people you would expect to be hanging out in the streets in Amsterdam. After two hours of waiting the station opened. We went inside only to find that the first train that could take us to our car didn’t leave until 6:30am. So we sat down in the train station to wait it out. Then we decided we should try and figure out the “night bus” thing we had heard about. After searching around and asking many people who knew nothing, we found where the buses left from. After more waiting in the cold we were able to get on one of the buses. Thank goodness! We finally arrived at the parking lot and guess what? We couldn’t find the car!! I gave Laura my bags and ran the entire parking lot – no car. Finally, like the voice of God, someone said over the intercom, “Can you find your car?” One of the lot attendants came down, took one look at our ticket, and knew exactly where our car was. I have never been so happy to see a car. We took off, and I kid you not, 30 minutes after we left we encountered the worst fog I have ever seen. We had to slow down to 20km/hour, but even then we were having trouble seeing the white lines on the road. It was ridiculous. We weren’t meant to get home. After covering only a few kilometers in 20 minutes we decided it would be best to pull off the road and wait it out. Luckily we were able to see a rest stop through the fog, pulled off, and tried to sleep for about 4 hours. I grabbed a Coke at the rest station at around 8am and we took off for the rest of the ride home. We pulled up to the gate at the house around 9:30am and the gate wouldn’t open. I then tried to catapult myself over the fence, but only wound up hurting my arm and didn’t make it over. We eventually made it into the house. Dana said she kept expecting to fall down the stairs on her way to bed – it would have fit perfectly with the night.

As you might expect after an adventure like that we slept in VERY late on New Year’s Day. I honestly can’t remember what we did for the rest of the day. It probably involved some TV, “I Love New York,” food, and packing. On Wednesday we woke up early to catch our flight to Budapest, Hungary. We arrived to find snow and much colder weather than I am accustomed to in Germany (I was kicking myself for not having brought long underwear). We had plans to stay in a local university student’s apartment in downtown while we were there (thanks to Sarah!), found it relatively easy, and waited for Marton (the university student) to finish an exam and let us in. We dropped off our stuff in the hallway (since three French guys were still occupying our room) and went to check out Budapest. We went to Vaci Utca, the main shopping and pedestrian street in Pest (Budapest was originally two cities – Buda and Pest, on opposite sides of the Danube River), which was only two blocks or so away, checked out some of the shops and got some hot tea. Then we began what we lovingly called “Jew Tour ‘08” at the Budapest Great Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe and second largest in the world, after New York City. It was very impressive. Sarah explained a lot of the customs and different parts of the synagogue once we were inside. After touring the synagogue, gardens, and museums, we walked through the Jewish Quarter of Budapest. We eventually made it back to the apartment to meet Marton. We moved all of our things into our room and Marton gave us a map and some tips on the city. We went out for Mexican food, something you can’t get in this part of the world very often, and went on a long, cold night walk through Budapest. It was worth it though, Budapest is an amazingly pretty city and looks great lit up at night. Here’s a shot of the Chain Bride, connecting Buda and Pest.

We woke up on Thursday and Dana wasn’t feeling very well. She stayed home to get some rest and Sarah and I went out to check out more of the city. First order of business was food. We went back to the Jewish Quarter to find a kosher restaurant that Sarah had read about. We found it tucked back in a seemingly residential neighborhood and it was quite an experience. Sarah and I were the only non-Hasidic-Jewish-men in the place. After lunch we went to the Opera House, hoping that we could snag some tickets for a show while we were in town, but unfortunately all the shows were sold out. The Opera House was still worth seeing, though. It was gorgeous, as all buildings in Budapest seem to be. The entire time I was in Budapest I kept thinking that it reminded me of Paris, but just slightly rougher around the edges and French-free. Once I got home I found articles that called it, “Paris on the Danube.” I guess I wasn’t that far off the mark. Since the Opera tickets didn’t work out we went over to the Parliament Building to try and get tickets for a tour. After waiting for a bit in line we found out that Parliament was sold out for the day. Great. We went back to the apartment to check on Dana and then went out to Fat Mo’s for dinner. Fat Mo’s was awesome. It had a Chicago speakeasy theme and live music almost every night. The food was amazingly good, too. We enjoyed our food and then were joined by a Ukranian and several Italians. We then joined tables with the two British girls, Lydia and Lydia, next to us. After a while of hanging out at Fat Mo’s and not being able to communicate with the Italians, Sarah, the Lydias and I went out to another bar that Marton recommended. The bar was very cool and overall it was a great night.

The next morning we got up and grabbed breakfast (surprise! ham and cheese croissants – we can’t read Hungarian) at a nearby grocery store. The store was filled almost completely with very old, pushy, slow-moving women, which made it difficult to get around. Sarah struck up a conversation with a guy from Malta – first person I have ever met from there. We went over to the Buda side of the city to visit one of many baths in the vicinity (Budapest is covered with natural thermal springs, and people have taken advantage of the hot water for years by building immaculate bath houses around them). But before we went to the baths we had to buy bathing suits, which proved more difficult than we thought it would be. After a small search we gave up on the bath idea for the day and had lunch at a great pizza restaurant with a direct view of Parliament across the Danube. After sipping some hot chocolate we decided to brave the cold and climb to the top of Várhegy (Castle Hill). It was DEFINITELY worth the few minutes of uphill walking. Our first stop on the top of the hill was Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Gothic arcade that has the best views of the city. You can probably tell from the pictures. It was my favorite spot. Directly adjacent to Fisherman’s Bastion is Matthias Church, with a beautiful, multi-colored tile roof. The inside of the Church wasn’t bad either. As it got dark we moved onto the Labyrinth under Buda Castle. It was mostly an attraction for children, but we loved it (especially the allusions to the old David Bowie movie – our allusions, not the site’s). There are over 10km of caves and tunnels stretching beneath Castle Hill, which are assumed to have been joined by the Turks in the Middle Ages for military purposes. The tunnels also served as an air-raid shelter during WWII. Now they are filled with strange relics form a Hungarian history exhibit. It was still cool to wander around, though. At times the tunnels were exceptionally dark – there was one portion sectioned off into complete darkness. The only way you could get through was to hold onto a string tied to the wall. We also stumbled across a fountain of wine in the middle of the tunnels. We also made an Italian friend, Christian, in the tunnels. We had a cup of tea with him afterwards, walked around the Buda Castle, and took the funicular back down with him. It was an especially good thing that he was there because my camera died and he took the rest of our pictures and then sent them to us. Thanks, Christian!

We walked back over to do some more swimsuit shopping in Pest, were finally successful, and then went to Musselein, a Belgian Beer Bar, for dinner. We struck gold again – Budapest is a city that you can eat extremely well in. The food and beer were delicious. Unfortunately, by the time we left dinner the metro had shut down, so we had a long, cold walk home. Sarah and I even switched boots halfway back to make it a more comfortable walk.

On Saturday we woke up early, determined to get tickets for Parliament. As it turns out, early morning is the way to go. The line to buy tickets was much shorter than it had been in the afternoon. It was rough waiting outside, though. It was cold and windy. The guard made fun of us for being cold and said it wasn’t that bad. He then asked us how many pairs of trousers we were wearing. When we responded with “one,” he got a kick out of it. Apparently we don’t dress as warmly as Hungarians do. When it came time to pay (with cash) for our tickets we didn’t have exact change, which is what you need (and you don’t find this out until after you wait forever in line outside). Thank goodness there was a generous couple behind us who threw in 30 Forints for us (the equivalent of $0.18), otherwise we would have been out of luck again. To kill time until the tour we went over to the Parliament Café for some much-needed hot chocolate. Then it was tour time. We passed through the tight Parliament Building security, put our tracking devices on, and started up the grand 96-stair entryway. I’ve seen quite a few ornate buildings, but this one is up there with some of the more impressive ones I’ve seen. I forget how long it took to build, but trust me, it took a while. There is marble and gold leaf everywhere. The crown jewels are house in the Rotunda Room and the meeting rooms are gorgeous. There are even gold cigar-holders situated around the building, so that (when smoking was still permitted) the Parliament members could leave their cigars and come back to them. I particularly liked the pink marble throughout the building. The funny thing with the pink marble is that it is fake. All of the materials used in construction of Parliament were required to be Hungarian. Hungary, however, does not have pink marble, so Hungarian materials were used to construct the imitation marble. At the time, the imitation material cost 4 times what natural marble did. Today it is the reverse.

After Parliament we walked towards Városliget, the large City Park in Pest built to celebrate Hungarian history. Due to the cold we had to stop one more time for some hot chocolate at a cafe. Once we reached the park we got to see the impressive piazza of Heroes’ Square, one of MANY World Heritage sites in Budapest, and the ice rink outside of Vajdahunyad Castle. Vajdahunyad is very interesting to look at. It was built using a range of architectural styles, ranging from Romanesque to Gothic, each intended to represent a single century since the Magyars arrived. The effect is what appears to be several castles in one. After the castle we went to the Széchenyi Baths, which I had been looking forward to since we arrived in Budapest. It was amazing!!! Sarah and I got our own little “cabin” to change in, then wandered through the indoor baths/hot tubs ranging in temperature. We even ran across a pool with currents built in so that you could grab something to float in and go cruising very speedily around. I think it was mostly meant for kids, but we were definitely not the youngest ones in there. And then we made the best decision of our lives . . . we went outside to discover the real reason there were so many people around. The largest, warmest, and most impressive bath of all was outside, gushing steam into the cold air (I've included a photo of the outdoor bath in summer). It was great! We hung out there for a while, feeling like we were in a dream – the bath was surrounded by statues and yellow and white palace walls. People were even playing chess at the built-in tables around the bath. All in all, we spent two hours at the baths before leaving. Afterwards we felt amazingly relaxed, and magically the colds we both had seemed to disappear, so we were happy. That's me in our little changing cabin at the baths.

We took the metro back towards our apartment and did some shopping before meeting up with Dana for dinner. We took Marton’s advice and went to a place called Mensa for some Hungarian food. I’m glad we listened to him. Yet again, the food was great. There were several groups celebrating birthdays there, so periodically the lights would go way down, and a waiter would bring out a cake covered in sparklers, while “Happy Birthday To You” blasted in the background. It was fun. We went home with the intention of going back out again, after all, it was a Saturday night in Budapest. But by the time it came to leave again we were too tired and were enjoying watching (or at least making fun of) Hungarian music videos and the Turner Classic Movies channel.

On Sunday we woke up to some pretty awful weather. At least it waited until our last day. Dana and I met up with Sarah at the Christmas Market (still going strong in Hungary, unlike Germany) and searched for a place to get lunch. We didn’t want to walk very far. The weather was a mix of rain and snow on top of a layer of pure ice, a.k.a. the perfect mix to make someone fall. Luckily we found a small Hungarian restaurant not too far away. We tried some of the very traditional Hungarian foods, i.e. cabbage stuffed with meat and rice, golaska (dumplings), and goulash. Afterwards Dana went off to do some souvenier shopping and Sarah and I intended to go to the Opera House for a tour. I don’t think we got as far as a block before deciding against it. We were sure to fall along the way. We went to nearby St. Stephen’s Basilica, which was very impressive and then meandered back towards the apartment hitting many of the shops along the way. It turned out to be the best day to go shopping. Shop owners realized that it would be a horrible day, so they gave those willing to enter their shops extra incentive to buy things. In the first shop we went into the owner offered us palinka, a Hungarian fire whiskey that we had heard a lot about, right off the bat. We kept wandering and bought some postcards, chocolate, and chili chocolate. Since Dana had the only key, we killed time by trying some rice pudding at the gyro place underneath our apartment – it was really good! Once we were all back in the apartment we spent most of the rest of the day watching TV. It wasn’t worth trying to walk around. Here's Sarah in our apartment! We grabbed our dinner at the very close gyro place, managed to make it to an internet café, and then Sarah and I went back to Fat Mo’s for a brownie dessert and live music. As it got later we went home to pack because it was our last night in Hungary.

We woke up early and thankfully managed to get a cab. We had sent an email request the day before and got a reply that said, “I am sorry, but we are too busy to send a cab for you,” or something similar. Calling was much more effective. We made it to the Budapest airport, flew to Düsseldorf, where I said goodbye to Sarah and Dana, and they flew back to Moscow, where they stayed for the night before making the trek out to their hometown of Vladimir.